Skeena Voices | The beauty of birdwatching

Diane Weismiller has organized the annual Christmas Bird Count for close to 50 years

A Northern saw-whet owl in the Terrace area, which Weismiller said was one of her favourite birds seen during this year’s annual Christmas Bird Count. (Submitted photo/Diane Weismiller)

A Northern saw-whet owl in the Terrace area, which Weismiller said was one of her favourite birds seen during this year’s annual Christmas Bird Count. (Submitted photo/Diane Weismiller)

Today, the answer to any question is literally at the tip of our fingers.

The internet is an invaluable tool for a birdwatcher. Typing the description of a bird into Google is often good enough to identify the species. You can even take a photo of a bird with your phone and search that way.

Want more information on bird calls and songs?

You can listen to those on demand in seconds from the internet.

But for Thornhill’s Diane Weismiller, 78, things were a lot different when she started birdwatching in the early 1970s.

“To learn the calls at that time was really challenging because you had to use records, and it was difficult to find and repeat the song you wanted to hear or learn,” she said.

“Of course, nowadays, there’s apps and you can play any song and you can look up any bird and hear its song. It’s much easier.”

Today, Weismiller heads the annual Christmas Bird Count in the Terrace area — a role she’s held for close to 50 years.

She got her start in the world of birdwatching partly due to her father and partly due to a particularly snowy northwest B.C. winter.

Growing up on a farm in rural Alberta, Diane’s father would identify birds with the help of a knowledgeable neighbour. At that time, she was not particularly interested in the creatures.

She moved to the northwest in 1964, and a couple of years later her son was born in 1970.

“There was a lot of snow and we were living in a trailer, and we couldn’t really go out much or do much, it was not warm, and he was an infant,” Weismiller said.

“So I got my husband to build a bird feeder, and all these birds started to come and I didn’t know what they were. So I said, ‘I’ve got to learn what these birds are when I’m feeding them.’”

Weismiller bought a field guide and connected with Floyd Frank, an early settler in the Terrace area and keen birder. She described him as a sort of mentor in the world of birds.

In 1972, Weismiller participated in her first Christmas Bird Count, and then accompanied Frank for the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

“We started at 4:30 in the morning, and it involves doing 50 stops [where] you stop and listen for three minutes and then you go for your next half mile,” she said.

“I had to learn these calls, because you can’t really identify most of the birds by sight, because the trees are too leafy and the birds are hidden, so you pretty much have to rely on your ears.”

Later, she brought along her family which was always a good experience.

“When we started our children were young and we had a truck and a little camper on the back, it was a very small and it was just like a little box, really with a couple of beds in it. But the children used to stay in there and they would be sleeping in there.”

“We’d stop about breakfast time and instead of just jumping out for three minutes [the kids] could have their breakfast … that was always kind of a fun, outing and everybody enjoyed that.”

Weismiller said that her daughter Theresa, who lives in Prince Rupert, also enjoys bird watching. But like Diane, Theresa’s interest grew as she got older. When she went to university in Victoria and took a birding course, Theresa was hooked.

“So now she’s very keen, she goes out every day and has a good camera, a good scope, and she has binoculars by every window at her house, she sees lots of good birds there too,” Diane said.

For someone who has seen so many birds, Weismiller said she doesn’t have one favourite species. She said she finds chickadees cute and fun to watch, and enjoyed seeing a saw-whet owl during this year’s Christmas Bird Count.

While she might not have a favourite bird, Weismiller has seen some rare ones in her half-century of watching in northwest B.C. She witnessed the first grey-tailed tattler spotted in the province in June 2020, and has also seen a brown thrasher, cattle egret and hooded oriole. None of those species are native to the Terrace area.

She inputs her sightings into the eBird database, another new technology in the world of birdwatching. Weismiller said that people can upload photos, lists and sightings of birds, even if they are historical. Users can also see what kind of birds are being seen elsewhere — a very handy feature for trips to Victoria.

“I’m hoping to get more people to use eBird. Because when they do, it’s very easy for them to enter their reports and then it’s very easy for them to share them … It’s a good way to meet new people and friends, find new people to go birding with.”

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder to connect with other birdwatchers. The annual Christmas Bird Count used to be somewhat of a social occasion, but has been missing that part as of late.

There used to be a gathering after the count, which has not been able to happen.

“It’s become a tradition in our family. We used to have a gathering, and people would come over and share stories about what they saw during the day and maybe have a cup of tea together or a meal together. And so that was fun.”

Weismiller’s age is also changing the way she watches birds. Her ears and eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, and she said she would love to find someone to take over some of her jobs with the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey.

But, she plans to keep getting out there and birding as long as she can.

“I have hearing aids, they’re supposed to help, but we’ll see. It hasn’t been a good time to test them because the birds aren’t singing now. But in the spring, we’ll see if that helps me or not,” she said.

“I don’t think I’ll be stopping anytime soon.”

 

Diane Weismiller has organized the annual Christmas Bird Count for close to 50 years. (Submitted photo/Diane Weismiller)

Diane Weismiller has organized the annual Christmas Bird Count for close to 50 years. (Submitted photo/Diane Weismiller)